Five great getaways
Nestled at the foot of Mount Asama, the most active volcano in Honshu, lies the upmarket resort town of Karuizawa. Many wealthier Tokyoites own second homes here and the area – like much of Nagano prefecture – exudes exclusivity. Start your day at Karuizawa Ginza in the old part of the town, with its traditional shops, cafés, restaurants and stalls selling locally-produced jams and honey.
Serious shoppers searching for serious discounts should head to the Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza near the train station. This discount shopping outlet is home to over 200 stores set in a sprawling and beautifully landscaped area – great for kids to run wild while you splash the cash. When your credit cards scream for mercy, escape to the open-air Tombo-no-yu bath house for a peaceful soak. Finish off your day at Harunire Terrace. Order yourself a pint of the delicious locally-brewed Yona Yona ale, contemplate how the other half live and devise your own get rich quick scheme so you can join them.
Getting there: Karuizawa is just over an hour from Tokyo on the Hokuriku Shinkansen. Get the JR Tokyo Wide Pass (¥10,000) for unlimited travel on all JR trains in the Kanto area over three consecutive days. hoshinoresorts.com/en/resortsandhotels/daytrip/tonbo.html
Located in Kanagawa prefecture on the northern end of the Miura Peninsula, which divides Tokyo Bay from Sagami Bay, this picturesque seaside town is one of the most popular summertime destinations for Tokyoites. If you love your water sports, head over to Isshiki Beach in the town's northwest corner for swimming, kayaking, sailing, windsurfing and paddleboarding. Considered one of the best beaches in Japan due to the clean, ash-coloured sand, postcard-cute beach houses and surprising lack of crowds, it has been a favourite of the Imperial family since the 1980's. With impressive views over the bay and marina, the nearby Hayama Marina is a great spot for a light lunch or an afternoon coffee while gazing out over the water.
Getting there: Hayama is an hour from Tokyo. Take the JR Shonan-Shinjuku or Yokosuka Line from central Tokyo to Zushi Station. From here, transfer to the number 12 bus to Hayama. hayamamarina.com
Although better known for its sake than its vino, Japan has actually been producing amazing wines using locally-grown grapes since the 1800s. Katsunuma, in Yamanashi prefecture, is home to 31 wineries which between them account for about 30 percent of all Japanese wine. Many offer tasting sessions and lessons in winemaking as well as tours. Three of the best are Chateau Mercian, Haramo Wine and the Suntory Tomi no oka Winery. The local Koshu grape produces a distinctively pale, straw-coloured wine with a soft, fruity bouquet and overtones of citrus and peach.
Experience it yourself at Budo no Oka (Grape Hill). Here, you can soak in magnificent views of the surrounding vineyards and the Japanese Southern Alps to the west – Yamanashi is home to Mount Fuji – while tasting more than 150 varieties of wine. At just ¥1,100 for the all-you-can-drink experience, there’s a temptation to overdo it, but there’s plenty else to enjoy on site including a terrific barbecue restaurant and open-air hot spring.
Getting there: Katsunuma is around 1 hour 30 minutes on the JR Chuo Line Limited Express Azusa or Kaiji from Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station to Katsunuma-Budokyo Station. budounooka.com
This small coastal town is often referred to as the Kyoto of Eastern Japan for its multitude of temples, shrines and historical monuments. It was the country’s political capital during the Kamakura shogunate (1185–1333) and there’s plenty to do and see here. Top of the list should be a visit to the Great Buddha of Kamakura (Kamakura Daibutsu). This towering bronze statue of the celestial buddha is the second tallest in Japan and stands at 13.35m. Originally cast in 1252, the buddha has been peacefully watching over its visitors since 1495.
If you have a little more time, pay a visit to Tsurugaoka Hachimangu, Kamakura’s largest Shinto shrine. Considered the town’s most important monument, it was built in 1063 by Yoritomo Minamoto, founder of the Kamakura Shogunate and the first Shogun in the Kamakura Period. You can reach the site via a long, wide approach that leads from Kamakura’s waterfront through the city centre, with multiple torii gates along the way. The grounds include the main hall, a museum and many secondary shrines as well as beautiful ponds and trees. Look out for a horseback archery display in mid-September, performed along the main approach.
Getting there: Kamakura is less than an hour from Tokyo via the JR Yokosuka or Shonan-Shinjuku Line from Shinjuku Station. The cheapest but, at 90 minutes, slowest route is via the Enoshima Kamakura Free Pass (¥1,470), which provides a round trip from Shinjuku Station to Kamakura, as well as unlimited use of the Enoden Line for the day. odakyu.jp/english/deels/freepass/enoshima_kamakura/
Located within Chichibu-Tama National Park in the mountainous western region of Saitama prefecture, Chichibu is a magnet for outdoor enthusiasts. The park’s mountains are nonvolcanic and have an average height of 1,000m, meaning river valleys beautifully showcase each season with their vibrant colours. With over 1,262 kilometres to explore, it can be difficult to know where to start. Mount Mitsumine is the most famous peak thanks to the ancient Shinto shrine at its top.
Hitsujiyama Flower Park is another must-see. Set against an impressive backdrop of Mount Buko and known for its sea of pink and white Shibazakura (moss phloxes), it overlooks the entire city area of Chichibu. The park features around 1,000 cherry trees, including yoshino cherry, weeping cherry and double-petal cherry trees. For something a bit livelier, hit up the Kawase Matsuri held on July 19-20. The festival features eight groups carrying special dashi floats around the city. Mikoshi are carried into the Arakawa River before being brought to special spots in each neighbourhood where they are enshrined to bring the festival to a close.
Getting there: Reach Chichibu’s Seibu-Chichibu Station on the Seibu Line in about 80 minutes from Tokyo’s Ikebukuro Station. www.sainokuni-kanko.jp/eng/sightseeingspot/023.html